3.3.7 Myrtle: Rest and Restoration
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 3.7
Myrtle: Rest and Restoration
With the myrtle tree, we once again find ourselves in unsure territory. Our problem here is a dearth of data: this tree is mentioned in only four passages in scripture (all of them in the Old Testament), and several of those are pretty esoteric. But within those passages, this tree certainly seems to be used as a symbol. It is usually found listed in the company of other trees which have solid symbolic pedigrees—several of which we’ve already covered: the cedar, the palm, and the olive. If we’re going to determine what the symbolic significance of the myrtle tree is, we’re going to have to stay on our toes, because God hasn’t exactly made this one obvious.
On the theory that God never does or says anything by chance, notice that in the only passage in the Bible where the myrtle tree is mentioned in isolation from other tree-symbols, it is referred to three times, as if to say, “This is important, folks: pay attention.” “On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of Yahweh came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying, ‘I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse!…” Our first problem is that the vision wasn’t really about the myrtle trees—it was about the horses and the men riding them, or more correctly, what they symbolized (something we covered in our study of horses, if you’ll recall). I don’t know how significant it is, but note when Zechariah was given the vision (actually visions, plural—he saw eight of them this night, recorded between 1:1 and 6:8), it was only about a week before “New Year’s Day” (so to speak), the first day of Nisan. The picture (if there is one) is that Zechariah’s visions all looked forward to the renewal and restoration of Israel. Ryrie notes concerning this first one, “The meaning of the vision is this: though Israel is oppressed, God is still greatly concerned for His people and will restore them.” I would add that although the restoration of Judah after the Babylonian captivity is in the near view, Israel’s ultimate regathering and restoration during the Messiah’s Millennial Kingdom is also—and perhaps primarily—being prophesied.
So where do the myrtle trees come into this? “He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.’ Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’ The angel who talked with me said to me, ‘I will show you what they are.’ So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, ‘These are they whom Yahweh has sent to patrol the earth.’ And they answered the angel of Yahweh who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, ‘We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest….’” For what it’s worth, this is where I’m gleaning the meaning of the myrtle tree symbol. The angel, standing amid the myrtle trees in the glen, had sent the riders on a reconnaissance mission, to determine the status of the nations. They found them “at rest,” a phrase derived from two Hebrew verbs: yashab means “to sit, dwell, or abide,” and shaqat denotes “to be quiet, tranquil, at peace, or undisturbed.”
In particular, no one was, at the moment, attacking Israel or Judah, delivering Yahweh’s judgment to their doorstep. Why? Because they’d already been subdued, sacked and sent off to live in exile. So Zechariah’s angel asks Yahweh a question designed to help the prophet figure out what’s going on: “Then the angel of Yahweh said, ‘O Yahweh of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?...’” In other words, “Why are those nations who wreaked havoc so excessively among Your people still enjoying their peace and prosperity?” That thought, though relevant during the Babylonian captivity, is even more so today: the whole world is busy aligning itself against its two perceived “enemies”—Israel and the church.
Historically, Jeremiah (in 25:11) had prophesied that Judah would become a wasteland and would serve the king of Babylon for seventy years, allowing the Land to enjoy its Sabbath rests. (Also see II Chronicles 36:21.) Funny thing, though. Any way you calculate it, Judah’s captivity was over and done with—that is, they were allowed by the Persians (who had conquered the Chaldeans in 539 BC) to return to the Land—before the seventy years were up. But quite a few of the “seventy years” references, if you study them, actually refer to Babylon’s ascendency, not Israel’s (i.e., Judah’s) bondage, though the two things were roughly coterminous. It’s as if Babylon had been raised up by Yahweh for the specific purpose of chastising Judah.
But there is one metric that shines a very bright light on the whole matter—from Yahweh’s point of view. It’s the temple: it was destroyed by Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BC, but it was rebuilt under the auspices of the Persian King Darius precisely seventy years later, finished in 516 BC. Yahweh’s anger, it transpires, was demonstrated most pointedly by removing His temple from Israel’s midst. Since the temple is a comprehensive metaphor for God’s plan for the redemption of mankind, taking it away from Israel is about as stinging a rebuke as it would be possible to make. Oh, and need I remind anyone that the second temple (Herod’s magnificent remodel of Ezra’s modest structure) was again removed from Israel in the wake of their rejection of Yahshua, in 70 AD? They still haven’t been allowed to rebuild it. Yahweh has instead allowed the festering ulcer of Islam to maintain its “third holiest shrine” (the Dome of the Rock) there, polluting the temple mount and dominating Jerusalem’s skyline since the late seventh century.
This state of affairs will not be allowed to remain indefinitely, though Israel herself is impotent to right the wrongs. Zechariah reports: “And Yahweh answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me. So the angel who talked with me said to me, ‘Cry out, Thus says Yahweh of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. And I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease [i.e., those who had been described as being ‘at rest’].” Note that it’s not just Babylon now, but the nations—plural—to whom the three horsemen had been sent by the angel of the myrtle trees—those peoples who were now “sitting quietly,” secure (in their own imaginations) in their opposition to Yahweh and His people. “For while I was angry but a little, they furthered the disaster. Therefore, thus says Yahweh, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; My house shall be built in it, declares Yahweh of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. Cry out again, Thus says Yahweh of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and Yahweh will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’” (Zechariah 1:7-17) What we see today bears no resemblance to the Jerusalem of prophetic scripture. I am looking forward to the day when Yahweh will restore Jerusalem and bring rest to Israel, but a whole lot of water must flow beneath the bridge of history before He’ll bring it to pass.
Anyway, it was in a grove of myrtle trees that the long-term intentions of Yahweh toward Israel were revealed: He would wipe the self-satisfied smirk off the faces of the nations that stood against His people, and restore His people under the reign of His Messiah. That reign is prophesied in the seventh and last holy convocation that was to be celebrated every year in Israel—the Feast of Tabernacles. We’ve already visited this passage describing its celebration by the returning exiles under Ezra, noting that some of the “building materials” for the booths were described a bit differently than they had been in Leviticus 23. To recap: “On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. And they found it written in the Law that Yahweh had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, ‘Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written….’” Whereas the Leviticus 23 instructions defined (in metaphorical terms, anyway) who would populate the Millennial Kingdom, here in Nehemiah, the description seems to stress the characteristics of the age.
The two constants are the palm trees (signifying righteousness) and the “leafy trees (‘aboth ‘es), a description characterizing the population as being interwoven together—like the warp and woof of a fabric—a process that multiplies the beauty, utility, and strength of its component parts: Israel and the ekklesia. We’ve already discussed how olive trees symbolize the source of God’s Spirit in (and to) the world. The domesticated olive represents Israel, of course, and the wild olive trees are the church—we who have been “grafted in” to the same life-giving trunk and root system. That leaves only the myrtle to identify. If our observations from Zechariah are valid, I’d take the myrtle here to indicate that a state of rest and restoration will prevail during the Millennium. This, of course, is a perfect match for the position of the Feast of Tabernacles on Yahweh’s calendar: it’s the seventh, the Sabbath of the group, the one that celebrates the rest from our labors in the field of humanity.
Comparing it functionally to the previous two appointments on the calendar (neither of which has been fulfilled in history as yet), we can begin to see how it all fits together. The church will have been called in from the field on the fifth convocation, the Feast of Trumpets (a.k.a. Yom Teruah). Paul’s description of the “catching up” or “rapture” of the ekklesia is a perfect fit for the imagery of the Feast of Trumpets. But our impending escape from “the trial which is to come upon the whole world” (i.e., the Tribulation) is the least of it, a happy coincidence. The real function of Yom Teruah is to transform the saints from mortal beings (whether alive or deceased) into immortals—or, if you will, to “translate” us from a clumsy and inadequate “language” (so to speak)—our present mortality—into a robust, beautiful, and expressive tongue capable of conversation with Yahweh Himself.
And the sixth miqra or appointment, the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippurim, predicts the inevitable response of Israel to their returning Messiah: affliction of their national collective soul in the grim realization that their fathers crucified their Anointed Savior. Zechariah (in 12:10) reports that they will look on Yahweh, whom they pierced, and mourn as one grieves for a firstborn son. No kidding, Zack. It will be the great oy vey! Both of these monumental prophetic events will precede the Feast of Tabernacles, for the Feasts of Leviticus 23 are celebrated in the order of their fulfillment (or at least, they have been so far). The fact that the Day of Atonement follows the Feast of Trumpets makes it clear that during the Millennium, two races of humans—mortals and immortals—will populate the earth. I realize that this makes the whole scenario about as counterintuitive as it gets, but don’t blame me: I didn’t write Leviticus.
It seems clear that the definitive Day of Atonement will occur in the same year (2033, if I’m not mistaken) as the commencement of the Millennial Kingdom on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles, though the Feast of Trumpets will precede these by at least seven years, and perhaps much longer. (Based on the prophetic requirements, I’ve got a date in mind, but since Yahweh didn’t tell us when it would occur, I won’t make my guess a matter of public record.) The date of the rapture is beside the point for today’s believers anyway, for our instructions remain constant as the time approaches: we are to love God, show that love by loving our neighbors, spread the Good News, and remain watchful. We still have the same job first-century Christians did. We just have better tools.
Back in our text, Nehemiah describes the dress rehearsal of the Feast of Tabernacles as performed by the returning Babylonian exiles. “So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so.” This means, sadly, that even during the glory days of Israel, under the reigns of David and Solomon, the Feast of Tabernacles (and presumably a whole lot more of the Torah) had not been celebrated in Israel—at least not as God had prescribed. The dedication of Solomon’s temple coincided with the Feast (compare II Chronicles 5:3 with 7:8). But although they had a big national party, it was not in accord with, nor for the purpose of, that which was specified in the Torah—a preview of God coming to dwell with man. This should come as a sobering lesson to all of us: we must remain vigilant against doing the right thing for the wrong reason, doing the wrong thing for the right reason, or doing anything to compromise God’s word to further our own agenda. Yahweh is not stupid: He knows the difference.
“And there was very great rejoicing. And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God.” If only our presidents, CEOs, professors and pundits would do that, we might have a fighting chance against the world. “They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule.” (Nehemiah 8:13-18) A seven-day feast would have indicated completion and perfection, and the Millennium will certainly be all of that. But this is an eight-day appointment with God. The solemn assembly required on the eighth day indicates what will follow on the heels of the Messiah’s perfect thousand year earthly reign: the eternal state, with new heavens, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, and a whole new spiritual paradigm.
But for the time being, there are only seven days in the week. That is, until the Feast of Trumpets, we are all mortals, living—and dying—on the earth. It is here that we “grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man”—or not. It is here that we make our choices: what path to walk, whose song to sing, whose drumbeat we’ll march to. So it is here on this earth that Yahweh reveals Himself to us. Bearing in mind that Israel is a symbolic microcosm of the whole human race, He says, “Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares Yahweh. Your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel….” And how will Yahweh demonstrate this “help” during the Millennium? Through evidence germane to man’s mortal existence. Bear in mind that the church will already have been made immortal at this point. These signs are not for us, for we will already have “kept His command to persevere.” They are, rather, for (1) Israel (whose life-changing spiritual epiphany will come after the rapture), (2) the belatedly repentant gentile survivors of the Tribulation (those who took Christ’s advice to Laodicea in Revelation 3:18-20), and (3) their billions of descendants born over the next thousand years. “I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys. I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will put in the wilderness the cedar [strength], the acacia [life], the myrtle [rest and restoration], and the olive [His Holy Spirit]. I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, that they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of Yahweh has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.” (Isaiah 41:14, 18-20) The skeptical scribes and Pharisees of Yahshua’s day demanded a sign, but they were given one only the spiritually enlightened could comprehend. But the Millennial multitudes—who feel fortunate merely to be alive after the carnage and devastation of the time of Jacob’s trouble—will be shown an unexpected miracle: the healing and restoration of planet earth. The myrtle will sprout in the wilderness, figuratively and literally.
The contrast—the “before and after pictures”—will be obvious and undeniable. The source of the earth’s restoration is the word of God: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes out from My mouth. It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” And what is that purpose? That we might rejoice in Yahweh’s presence—blessed children of the king dancing and singing in unrestrained joy before His throne. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for Yahweh, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55:10-13) The restoration is now complete; the curse is reversed. We had begun with: “Cursed is the ground because of you. In pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life. thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground.” (Genesis 3:17-18) But now, instead of “thorns and thistles,” those “briers” of which Isaiah spoke, the redeemed are to receive the “everlasting sign” of the myrtle tree.